There’s barely a second to waste in television today; most shows pack plot threads into running times more tightly than sardines. But back in the days of Classic Doctor Who, there was room for a story to breathe – admittedly, sometimes too much room. Spanning from the 60s to the 80s, when a televised shot could last longer than five seconds, Classic Who had its fair share of strange asides and mind-altering trips…
Ancient skull space-out (Image of The Fendhal – Part 1)
In two minutes of today’s Doctor Who, a lot of plot can happen, and frequently does. You’d never get something like the sequence that runs part way through Image of the Fendahl’s first episode, when Thea Ransome (Wanda Ventham) forms a psychic link with the glowing prehistoric cranium.
Although chunked into twenty-second segments, there’s an entire minute of screen time given to the close-up of Ventham’s wide-eyed stare superimposed over the glowing skull, coupled with a deeply sonorous sound effect – possibly the most disturbing (and mesmerizing) footage in the show’s history. Groovy bonus switch for the bit near the end when Ventham turns into a Fendahl-babe spray painted gold and with a set of creep-out eyes painted on her lids.
The TARDIS explodes (The Mind Robber - Part 1)
In an episode that has Jamie and Zoe traipsing through an strange white void while the Doctor does battle in the TARDIS console room with some unseen force, it’s the episode climax that really ups the psychedelic ante. The TARDIS doesn’t just explode; it fragments into chunks. Jamie and Zoe are left clutching the console for dear life as it dips into a black void. Zoe switch to the Doctor, himself seemingly comatose and spinning independently of the console, but we have no two-shot to indicate where he is in relation to his companions. It’s all strangely phantasmagorical, and I haven’t even mentioned the rather eye-catching angles of Wendy Padbury…
Jon Pertwee travels into a dimensional void (Inferno – Part 1)
There are many sequences where the Doctor is pulled into some inky black nether-region (wrestling an Omega monster in The Three Doctors, tumbling through a pit of anti-matter in Planet of Evil), but this one takes the cake. Crash-zooms and funky optical effects to give the appearance of Jon Pertwee’s face being pulled apart.
When coupled with some seriously wonky soundscapes courtesy of Delia Derbyshire, this minute-long exercise plays out like the worst mushroom trip in history. Pertwee had a habit of going over-the-top with the bug eyes when being attacked by monsters, but here they only add to the surreal effect.
A trip into the Matrix (The Deadly Assassin – Parts 2 and 3)
By the time we got to The Ultimate Foe (1986), traipsing into the Matrix was almost a jaunt. But back in the 70s, entering the Matrix was like diving into a bottle of absinthe. Most bewildering are the early moments when Tom Baker stumbles into this new world completely disoriented. Bizarre effects abound, such as a giant set of eyes open over a cliff face, or the reflective metal in the dirt revealing a laughing clown). Even the one that shouldn’t work (dudes with darkened aviator goggles driving a toy train on footage shot at fewer frames-per-second) does.
Axos (The Claws Of Axos)
Have you seen the inside of this spaceship? It’s got a phallic eyestalk, some serious bluescreen action, and is populated by two guys and two girls wearing catsuits and metallic gold bodypaint. They make frogs grow really, really big. When they get angry, those bodypainted dudes turn into giant red tentacle blobs. Seriously! If the band Phish is reading this, you HAVE to go on tour here. Be sure to bring some glowsticks.
The Ogri absorb human flesh (The Stones Of Blood – Part 3)
A young couple on a romantic camping trip emerges from their tent (and who knows what else) to find Ogri stones sitting there like peeping Toms. The woman places her hand on one, and the stone begins to throb with color and pulse with sound. Then the woman screams, and we dissolve from her actual hand to a skeletonized one. The scene does nothing to further the plot, but allows giant rocks to be chalked up on the list of fears for campers along with bears and mountain lions.
Take your pick of anything – and then try to explain it (Warriors’ Gate)
Admittedly, the whole “white void” business was already done back in The Mind Robber, but it’s worth inclusion here. Notable sequences include Biroc the Tharil breaking into the TARDIS out of phase, making him appear like a series of jump cuts. For my money, the Doctor’s initial voyage through the mirror-like gateway is channeling the works of Jean Cocteau in all the best ways, and the black-and-white gardens are a dreamy use of a video effect. Most perplexing of all is the end of episode 3, in which the Doctor and Romana appear to converge at the same point from vastly different time streams. I’ve seen this serial at least ten times and I still don’t get it (don’t even ask about Ghost Light).
Tegan loses her mind (Kinda - Parts 1 & 2)
Quickly dispensing Nyssa from the story, and sidelining the Doctor and Adric to a more traditional plot strand, Kinda maroons Tegan under a set of dreamy chimes, allowing the snake-like Mara to possess her. Here, the story turns into a literal head trip that would do William S. Burroughs proud. Part 1 features the great video effect of zooming into Janet Fielding’s eye until we enter her pupil. In yet another dark void, Tegan encounters a grotesque parody of Nyssa and Adric in the form of a pair of old people playing chess, and a trickster figure who teases her with enigmatic answers to her increasingly frantic questions. It makes you wonder how a Christopher Bailey adaptation of Alice In Wonderland would play out.
The Fifth Doctor regenerates (The Caves of Androzani – Part 4)
Of all the regeneration sequences, this one feels as if we’ve stepped into the Doctor’s own point-of-view at the moment of death. It recalls Tom Baker’s chrysalis into Peter Davison, presenting a who’s who of the fifth Doctor’s companions swirling around his head and beckoning him to cling to life.
The appearance of Anthony Ainley’s Master pushes the regeneration on, causing a tunnel-like void of bright pink light and a massive buildup of sound – essentially the same effect you get from a Flaming Lips show. The explosive sound effect (echoing the Beatles’ Day In The Life) is great; so too is the final ghostly image of Peter Davison fading out as Colin Baker erupts into a close-up onscreen. All this, and Nicola Bryant forgets to button up her blouse. Classic television!
The TARDIS first de-materializes (An Unearthly Child)
Granted, the effect of the TARDIS taking off and landing occurs in nearly every episode, but it’s never given as much surreal emphasis as in the pilot. Running over one minute in length, it extends the iconic de-materialization sound effect over a montage of swirling howl-around video effects that make up Hartnell’s title sequence, interposed with a zoomed-out image of London, and close-ups of the TARDIS crew looking more than a bit lost. The final shot of the TARDIS on an ancient, windswept plain, remains quietly eerie to this day.